Hurdles galore

Print edition : March 23, 2007

An Argentinean Judge finds enough substance in the case to refuse Quattrocchi bail. But there are other factors too at play.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Paris

ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER Romano Prodi and his wife Flavia Franzoni with Congress president SoniaGandhi at her residence on February 15. Prodi was in India when Ottavio Quattrocchi's bail application was rejected in Argentina and his lawyers moved an appellate court.-R.V. MOORTHY

THE announcement came like a bolt from the blue. A laconic communique published by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on February 23 announced that Ottavio Quattrocchi, one of the prime accused in the multi-million dollar Bofors kickbacks scandal, had been arrested in the Argentine tourist hotspot of Iguazu on the basis of an Interpol Red Corner Notice issued in 1997.

It then turned out that Quattrocchi had in fact been arrested two weeks earlier, on February 6, but the nation had been kept in the dark. Not only that, the day the announcement was made, the Italian businessman had already been released on bail by an appellate court after having been refused conditional liberty by the federal court in El Dorado city on February 14.

To say that the government's silence was baffling would be an understatement. There was a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and hide the truth. Well-placed sources indicate that secrecy was maintained because the Quattrocchi arrest coincided with Assembly elections in India in three Sates and a visit by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The Government of India did not wish either the elections or his trip to be hijacked by the `Q' affair. Nor did it wish a visiting head of government to be embarrassed by persistent questioning and harassment from the press.

Be that as it may, this reporter conducted a far-reaching interview with the Italian Prime Minister the day after Quattrocchi was arrested. Had news of his detention been made public, it is evident that the focus of the interview would have been different. It was Italy that helped Quattrocchi obtain bail a week after Prodi's visit. The Italian Premier was in India when Quattrocchi's bail application was rejected and when his lawyers moved the appellate court in the provincial capital of Posadas.

India had 30 days from the date of arrest to lodge an official extradition request, a deadline that could be extended by an extra 10 days. A two-member CBI team would travel to Buenos Aires, it was announced, to argue India's case for having Quattrocchi extradited.

Chief Prosecutor S.K. Sharma and Superintendent of Police Keshav Mishra arrived in Buenos Aires on March 1 in torrential rain. Accompanied by India's Ambassador Pramthesh Rath, the CBI team went the same afternoon to the Argentine Foreign Ministry for a meeting with the head of the Asia Pacific desk, Nora Jaureguiberry, and with the Ministry's legal team led by Gustave di Paoli. The meeting lasted 20 minutes, during which the Indians were told the Ministry would take a few days to examine the 250-page dossier to decide whether the case was technically sound and if it could be sent on to the court for judicial examination.

However, the Ministry's response was surprisingly quick. Three days later, the case was declared receivable and the papers were despatched by special courier under the protection of the Federal Police to the court in El Dorado where Quattrocchi had first been produced before a magistrate. His lawyers, Alejandro Freeland and Adolfo Luis Tamini, will now have access to the case papers prepared by the CBI.

Quattrocchi's bail application was in fact refused by a vacation judge, Maria Arjol, who was replacing Judge Hachiro-Doi when the Italian was arrested. "I examined his case in the light of the law on penal cooperation given the fact there is no extradition treaty between the two countries. The Interpol documents were substantial enough for me to refuse bail. The case came to me because extradition law falls under the competence of the Federal Ministry of Justice," she told this correspondent in an exclusive interview. But she refused to go into further details on the grounds that the matter remained sub-judice. Quattrocchi was first produced before her on February 14 in the courtroom of El Dorado, a city close to Iguazu, a week after his February 6 arrest. At the time Romano Prodi was still in India talking to Indian leaders.

Following Judge Arjol's refusal to grant bail, Pedro Racagni, Quattrocchi's court-appointed lawyer, moved the federal appellate court in Posadas, the provincial capital of Missiones, on February 15 and obtained his client's release. Judges Mario Boldu and Anna Minconi then ordered Judge Arjol to execute the sentence. She impounded his passport, fixed bail at $10,000, refused him permission to leave Argentinean soil and released him after warning him to remain available to the court. Freeland joined the legal team later when he was contacted by Quattrocchi's family.

Prodi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on February 14.-V.V. KRISHNAN

In an interview with this correspondent, Freeland expressed outrage and anger at the conditions of his client's detention and the manner of his arrest. Both Freeland and his associate Tamini described Quattrocchi's arrest and subsequent jailing as "inhuman", given that their client "is 68, not in very good health and has recently undergone surgery".

"We now have to see if the exact charges levelled against Quattrocchi by the CBI are considered a crime in this country. Then there is the question of the statute of limitations. This case is almost 20 years old. How long can someone be prosecuted? The Judges will also go by the past history of the case, the fact that my client was cleared of all wrongdoing by the High Court in India first in 2004 and then again in 2005, that in London his bank accounts were unfrozen and that the Malaysian High Court refused to extradite him. All this will of course be taken into account when we prepare the defence," Freeland said.

Quattrocchi was tracked down by an Indian television crew in Buenos Aires and he has been confined to his hotel by a court order. He said the CBI case against him was false and that there was no substance in it, that he was being made a scapegoat and persecuted unnecessarily.

It is not going to be easy to obtain the extradition of Quattrocchi. The Italian Ambassador in Argentina, Stefano Ronca, addressed a strong letter to the court in Missiones pleading for Quattrocchi's release. The letter described the businessman as a much-decorated citizen of Italy who had made valuable contribution to his country. Quattrocchi, like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he reportedly has excellent relations, is often referred to as Il Cavaliere, which roughly translates as "knight".

With 45 per cent of the Argentine population being of Italian descent, the two countries usually enjoy excellent relations and have strong trade ties. Italy also has several consulates dotting Argentina. Claudio Miscia, the Italian Consul-General in the provincial town of Rosario, made it a point to appear before the court in Posadas where Quattrocchi's bail appeal was heard. Speaking to journalists, he, too, described the charges against Quattrocchi as "absurd".

In 2004, there was a blip in the relations on the heels of Argentina's 2001 economic crash. Several thousand Italian small investors, mainly pensioners, were among those who received just 25 per cent of the value of Argentine treasury bonds after Buenos Aires defaulted on its international debt. Italian anger was palpable, with Prime Minister Berlusconi describing the decision to devalue the bonds as "grossly irresponsible". Argentina is still trying to worm its way back into Italy's good books. In addition, President Nestor Kirchner is standing for re-election and his wife Christina has already begun doing the rounds of European capitals to drum up support. The release of Quattrocchi would be a small service that Buenos Aires would be happy to render Rome.

Argentina has traditionally been reluctant to extradite criminals, including known Nazi officials accused of war crimes, and it is not certain that Quattrocchi's case will be considered substantial enough to merit extradition.

There is some controversy about the manner in which Quattrocchi's arrest took place. His lawyers claim he was arrested not upon entering Argentina - he entered the country through Buenos Aires - but as he was preparing to depart after a sightseeing visit to the famous Iguazu falls. The Indian embassy refused to confirm his exact travel itinerary on the grounds that the police were withholding information, but immigration authorities reportedly said Quattrocchi entered Argentina on February 6 on a flight from Italy, changed planes at Buenos Aires and was arrested the same day when he arrived in Iguazu.

Asked why Quattrocchi had been detained in Iguazu and had not been spotted in Buenos Aires upon arrival, his lawyer said "Iguazu is considered a `hot frontier' since it is located on the common border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. All kinds of trafficking and smuggling goes on there and the police are much more vigilant as compared to Buenos Aires". Another reason for increased vigilance is that there is a large Lebanese Shia community in the town of Ciudad Del Este, on the Paraguayan side of the triple frontier. Surveillance has been stepped up there since 2001.

Reacting to the news that the Argentinean Foreign Ministry had decided that the CBI case was receivable by a court, Freeland said: "The CBI has failed to reveal the true picture to the Argentinean authorities. The CBI probably did not mention the two Delhi High Court verdicts releasing Quattrocchi. The Bofors case is based on lies and does not exist." He said his client would most likely sue Interpol for arresting him on "false and baseless charges. The petition will be rejected once the court has access to the past history of the case. Everything about this case is strange. The way he was arrested, the way he is being persecuted even after several verdicts clearing him. There is no logic to this at all. It seems surreal."

There was also some confusion about the role of Carlos Guillermo Daneri, the lawyer appointed by the court to represent India's interests. Although no formal extradition treaty exists between India and Argentina, there are several provisions in the Argentinean extradition law that allow such a procedure to take place. Article 25 of the Extradition Law (Number 24767) specifically details the duties of the public prosecutor appointed by the court to represent the interests of the country requesting the extradition. The court initially appointed public prosecutor Carlos Guillermo Daneri to represent India. When contacted, however, Daneri said he had no desire to work on the Indian case. "I am not interested. Nobody has briefed me. I do not care since I have enough work as it is," he snorted. The court then appointed an English-speaking lawyer based in Missiones province, Lillian Delgado, to represent India. However, Pramthesh Rath confirmed that he had shortlisted several lawyers and that the CBI would retain the services of one of them.

Pressure from the Italian government was clearly responsible for Quattrocchi's conditional release. This correspondent obtained a copy of the verdict of the appellate court order.

Quattrocchi's appeal to obtain bail goes under the following description: "Expte. No 9703/07 Quattrocchi, Ottavio s/ Recusro de Apelacion en Excpte. No 581-1/07 - Defensor Oficial Racagni, Pedro". The document is dated February 23, 2007.

Referring to the possibility of Quattrocchi fleeing or otherwise evading justice, the verdict cites a letter from Ambassador Ronca and the presence of the Italian Consul-General from the city of Rosario Claudio Miscia, as a guarantee against such an eventuality.The CBI team will not be allowed to meet or question Quattrocchi directly. It will only come in direct contact with him if the Judge orders a confrontation in court.

What, then, are the chances of Quattrocchi being let off once again? Journalist Mauricio Naviero said: "We Latinos can be very legal-minded. It is possible the Italians are pushing us. But we also do not like to be pushed around. Then there is the question of provincial judges who are sometimes independent minded. Of course, these judges do fall under direct federal control. At this point in time it is difficult to say. But given our past record of extraditions, I would say the chances are slim."

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